We must go back two hundred and eighty odd years. It is not easy to understand what London was then; but we must endeavour to get a rough notion of it into our heads, in order to be able to follow the particulars of this Story of the First Play-House.
Let us start from the Postern Gate which stands at the north-western corner of the Tower moat, looking out obliquely upon a wild tenter-ground, in one angle of which stands the Minories Cross. Remember, we are now in the year 1575, and that very few years have elapsed since the Queen, who at this time occupies the throne, was a prisoner in these royal dungeons. In the interval, as great changes have taken place in the streets of London, as in the art of portrait-painting, which her Majesty has brought into fashion.
Before the Queen’s time we had no such wonderful hands and eyes on canvas or ivory, as those of Hilliard, which Donne, the poet, extols to the skies; and the building of houses has kept pace with the multiplication and improvement of portraits — the vanity of the people, whose love of display has greatly increased within the last dozen years, being, doubtless, at the bottom of both.
From the Postern Gate we may make the whole round of the city on foot easily within an hour and a half, giving us plenty of time to look about us; for the circuit of the city walls is less than three miles. Our track lies straight to the north as far as Aldgate, which is the first entrance to the city on this side; and, being without the walls, we may regale our eyes with the pleasant sight of fields and gardens as we go along, for there is scarcely a solitary gable or chimney visible upon the whole line.
Turning off in a northwesterly direction, we follow the Great Wall, which in many places is nine feet thick, past Bedlam Gate, and All Hallows in the Wall, and Moorgate, until we come to Cripple Gate, so called because of the hospital for cripples, which the benevolence of the public formerly established here. The suburb of Houndsditch lies on our right as far as Bedlam Gate, exactly opposite to which the purlieu called Bishop’s Gate, and still more distant Shoreditch, indicated by straggling houses a long way off on each side, run, due north, into the open country.
Not a house is to be seen between this spot and the remote village of St. Giles’s, on the extreme north-west. Archery fields, bleaching grounds and commons, intervene as far as the eye can reach; and three or four windmills, dropped here and there on the verge of the horizon, fill up the landscape, which is airy enough, but rather flat and unprofitable. Still keeping close to the city wall, we descend to the north as far as Noble Street, from whence, turning westward, we pass the Gray Friars, and, again descending south, we find ourselves at New Gate.
This gate, on the west of the city, is exactly opposite to Aldgate, on the east. Their names suggest a clue to their history. The building of the Great Wall began, we may presume, with that part which abuts on the Postern Gate, from which spot the Tower flanks the city down to the river. If this supposition be correct, Aldgate was the first gate built, which will account for its name of Aid, Eld, or Old Gate; while the comparative lateness of the opposite structure is plainly recorded in its name of New Gate. The Wall continues in the same line to Lud Gate, from whence it again runs westward, till it is stopped by the Fleet river, upon the margin of which it finally shapes its course to the Thames, where it is terminated by a small fort.
We have now tracked the entire city round. It is hardly necessary to say that to the west of the Fleet river population is scant and capricious. There is a place called Fleet Street, but it has very few houses, and the few it has are uncomfortably scattered about, presenting the sort of aspect a new colonial settlement may be supposed to exhibit when the building lots are beginning to be taken up, with long intervals between them.
From Fleet Street and the Strand, where the buildings are more commodious, fields and gardens stretch up to Holborn; and the adventurous horseman, who does not fear to trust himself in lonely places, may penetrate far beyond to the two great provincial roads, known as the Way to Uxbridge, and the Way to Reading, and destined, hereafter, to become populous thoroughfares under some such titles as Oxford Street and Piccadilly. But we have nothing to do with these outlying districts: our business takes us within the city walls, which enclose the whole of the living hive called London, in this year of grace 1575.
The figure of the city is that of an irregular arch, springing on the east from the Tower, and on the west from the embouchure of the Fleet river, at that point otherwise known as Blackfriars. This is the capital of Good Queen Bess, very thickly inhabited in many places, especially towards the water-side, and somewhat thinly as we approach the inland boundaries, which have been marked out with a view to afford room for the city to grow and spread.
The vital statistics show a rapid advance of late. New streets have risen up in different quarters, and it is evident from the numbers of stalls which are beginning to infest the pavement, the increasing intrusion upon the footway of great sign-boards, with their iron scroll-work, and their preposterous gilding and painting, that the traffic of London is incalculably more active than it was in Henry the Eighth’s time, notwithstanding the magnificence of his Majesty’s pageants, abroad and at home.
The contrast between the interior and the exterior of the city is as good as a homily upon the progress of man. Outside the walls all is as silent as a churchyard. The air is so still, that you may hear a stray bird chirping in the grass, or catch the idle note of a carman’s whistle, for which the Queen is said to have a special liking. There is hardly a stir, except in the archery fields or upon London Bridge.
But London Bridge may be fairly considered a part of London itself. It is the only bridge over the river, and the only avenue to London from the south; and it is built over with houses pierced throughout for a causeway, which is often so marvellously crowded with waggons and cars, that the pedestrians are put to ingenious and dangerous straits to get out of the way.
Within the walls, the hum and strife and bustle are loud. Yet this is tranquillity itself, in comparison with what one may imagine this great city will become, if it go forward at the same rate of increase during the next three hundred years. We have as yet little din of horses’ hoofs, or carriage wheels; no great clatter of wharves or factories; and our machinery is so trifling that it can scarcely be said to reach the public ear. It is terrible to look into the future, with the multiplication table in one’s thoughts.
Numbers and wealth bring luxury and fantastical living. Queen Elizabeth is fond of finery, and is reported to have some thousands of brave dresses in her wardrobe. The prints of her Majesty’s gracious person, which are sold profusely in the shops and stalls, and which are doubtless genuine, none being permitted to be vended without her Majesty’s sanction — represent her labouring under a burden of jewels sufficient to weigh down an ox.
Her subjects are loyal, and they desire to imitate her noble example. No lady at court can be much costlier than a citizen’s wife .when she goes out in state, her hair puckered up with wires and sown with gold, a rich silk gown slashed with open sleeves, gorgeous silk stockings, a cut lawn apron, velvet shoes with high heels, a sparkling feather-fan, and a puff farthingale, in which she swirls through the streets as if she were inflated with air. This is the natural consequence of the splendour of the court. What is done in Westminster, will presently be emulated in Cheap and Dowgate; and it will go hard, too, with the wife of the vintner or the scrivener, if she do not make as grand a figure, to look upon from a distance at least, as the wife of any lord or knight of the shire amongst them.
Love of finery is inseparable from love of display; and love of display seeks gratification in public places and the haunts of pleasure. And this brings me at once to the stage-plays, interludes, and other dramatic entertainments which have been much encouraged in this reign. The favour with which they have been received may be easily explained.
The country is rich, and can afford such luxuries, and the age is smitten with a passion for adventure and discovery which takes singular delight in the representation of heroic actions and surprising incidents. But it is necessary to observe that this encouragement has come entirely from the people. Authority has all along set its face against Plays and Interludes as decoys for the idle and thoughtless, and centres of vice and profligacy.
Queen Mary was so anxious to repress the evil of these representations — especially when they betrayed any tendency to promote the Reformation — that she prohibited them within the city, except between the feast of All Saints and Shrovetide, and even then no play was allowed to be presented except such as had previously received the sanction of the Ordinary of the parish, who was to look after its theology.
On one occasion a licentious play was about to be acted at the Boar’s Head in Aldgate, when her Majesty sent an express messenger to the Lord Mayor, commanding him to seize the players forthwith and put them into prison, and to forward their play-book to the palace that her Majesty might see whether it contained any mischief. The players were afterwards released, but from that day to this the play-book has never been heard of.
Queen Elizabeth, and the worshipful council of the city, have improved upon these processes. Imprisonment was found to be quite useless. There was a vitality in the players that no dungeon could reduce. They came out of gate-houses and compters as brisk and lively as ever. If you put them down in one part of the town, they were sure to rise up again in another. If you chased them out of the Swan, you might confidently expect them to re-appear in the Lamb or the Mitre.
In vain they were fined and confined, suspended from their occupation altogether at intervals, and the crowds they collected, when they were allowed to play, put to the rout and dispersed upon the slightest indication of tumult. Under such circumstances, the Lord Mayor came to the conclusion that the only thing he could do with the vagrants was to cast them out of the city by a solemn edict, as in the old times devils were cast out by exorcisms.
Such an edict was accordingly drawn up, and duly published; and from this time, A.d. 1575, the players were interdicted from practising their calling within the limits of the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction, or, in other words, so far as their profession of the stage was concerned they were outlawed from the city.
And now follows the Story of the founding of the First Play-house.
Heretofore the players had performed in inn yards, or large empty rooms when they could get them, or sometimes in churchyards by permission of the clergy, for which permission they paid a swingeing fee. Their pursuit was notoriously precarious, both as to opportunity and profits. No man was a player only, for no man could live by playing alone, so oppressive were the restrictions as to time, place, and matter. We shall now see, moving onward out of this year 1575, what revenges came round for the poor players in the whirligig of time, through the operation of the edict of banishment.
Amongst the outlaws was one James Burbadge, who, fortunately for himself and for us, was by trade a carpenter. To this respectable occupation he added that of an occasional stage-player, picking up some slender gratuities in that way when opportunity served. In what line he acted, or how he acted, are questions to which no answers can now be obtained. But it may be presumed that he held some rank amongst his fellows, as the Earl of Leicester placed him at the head of his little company of actors, for whose performances his lordship obtained a patent — the first ever granted in England — under the Great Seal in 1574.
The Revels at Kenilworth were to take place in the following July, and Burbadge, while the high, festival lasted, would, no doubt, be at the top of his glory ; but when that gorgeous assembly broke up, and the guests departed, and the castle relapsed into silence, and the players were dismissed with their largess, where was he to wander for a subsistence? Dismal thoughts set in upon his brain as he mapped out the dreary future.
The city was closed upon him. Stage-playing yielded. a thin living before; but it had now reached starvation point. James, too, was a married man and he had already two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, with a reasonable prospect of a growing family; for his wife Ellen, the daughter of Mr. Brayne, of London, had so fine a constitution that, under favourable circumstances, it was not easy to contemplate a limit to their domestic felicity.
What was to be done? Independently of the necessity of getting a living by some means, James Burbadge was not insensible to the fact that his father-in-law, Mr. Brayne, of London, was a man of substance, and would naturally expect him to maintain his daughter in as much comfort as she had passed out of from under the paternal roof.
These considerations put the worldly wit of poor Motley to a severe test. It was a fine thing to be sure to be one of the Earl of Leicester’s servants, under a royal patent; but what of that? The patent licensed him and his fellows to play interludes, and so forth; but of what avail was it, when they could not play them in London? The open galleries of the Belle Sauvage were always dancing before his eyes, and he could not get out of his head the chamber at Whitehall, where two years before he played in the presence of the Queen.
James Burbadge had the love of the stage at heart, dim, and crude, and undeveloped as it was. He was proud, of course, of being an actor; much prouder than he was of being a carpenter. But in this argument with himself, he did not forget that he was both. Having once struck upon that chord, he was carried away into a new train of ruminations. By the association of ideas he was led to the consideration of how he could make his two trades help each other.
The relations between them were not very palpable at first; but a sudden light broke in upon him, and he saw, as if it were revealed in a luminous picture before him, how the player might exalt the carpenter, and the carpenter contribute to the glory of the player. He went direct into London, for he lived a little way out of the jurisdiction, and straight to the house of Mr. Brayne, his father-in-law.
The light that broke in upon him was this. James Burbadge resided in the suburb of Shoreditch, in an irregular quarter sometimes called Holywell, sometimes Holywell Street, in the parish of St. Leonards, Close in his neighbourhood there lived one Giles Allen, who was the possessor of certain tenements in Shoreditch, besides property at Hasleigh, in Essex; and who, being of no occupation, but living at case upon his means, was entitled to write “gentleman” after his name.
This Giles Allen had certain houses and empty ground to let upon lease in this street, which at that time might be more properly described as an open road, for there were few buildings in it, and they had great spaces between them. Allen had altogether three houses, one of them known as the Hill House, which was let off in Hats to three or four industrious families, and a great barn, with appurtenances, also occupied by tenants, and a wide space of gardens and idle ground beside.
The annual rent for the whole of this, to be taken on lease, was 14 /. While casting about for a shelter for himself and his fellows, James Burbadge bethought him of this property of his neighbour, Goodman Giles Allen, but could see no way to turn it to account, until he called to mind the craft to which he had been apprenticed in his youth.
A carpenter assuredly was not a builder; but then there was Nonsuch House on London Bridge, which had not a single nail, or scrap of iron of any kind in it, nor a brick, nor a stone, nor a particle of cement, being built entirely of timber, and clamped so skilfully with the same material, that not a breath of air, or drop of rain could find entrance anywhere. That was no bricklayer’s work. It was a joiner’s house from the floor to the roof. Now this was the errand that took James Burbadge in hot haste to the house of his father-in-law.
Brayne was a shrewd man, and saw an opening for doing a little business which might be as beneficial to himself as to the players, without giving a thought to posterity, upon whom he was about to confer a greater benefit than upon either. The matter was speedily concluded.
Goodman Allen’s property was taken by James Burbadge for a term of twenty-one years, Burbadge stipulating that it should be lawful for him within the first ten years to take down any of the buildings for the purpose of erecting in then room a theatre, or place for performing stage plays; and Allen agreeing, on the other hand, that if such theatre was erected, Burbadge should be thereby entitled to a renewal of his lease. In order to enable Burbadge to carry out this design, Brayne advanced him the sum of 600 /., the repayment of which was secured by the assignment of a moiety of the theatre and other new buildings.
James Burbadge set about his undertaking with energy. Never had he in his life so much cause to exult in his knowledge of carpentry. The pile ran up rapidly day by day, and you may be sure that Lord Leicester’s servants watched its progress with glowing anticipations of the applause they were to win within its wooden walls.
At length the last board was struck, the last ladder was removed, and a flag was run up on a pole on the summit to announce that the anxious work was finished. Crowds are collected below round the base of the building. As the Hag springs aloft, huzzas rend the air, and the general enthusiasm finds a still more triumphant expression in a burst, or roar, of trumpets, recorders, and cornets, the future orchestra of the theatre, that may be heard at Bedlam Gate.
This was the founding of The First PlayHouse.
It was called “The Theatre,” no further distinction being necessary, as it was the only building of the kind in existence. But not many months elapsed before its success absorbed its monopoly. Burbadge found the speculation so profitable that, rather than let strangers come in to set up a rivalry against him in his own district, he resolved to be his own opposition; and, accordingly, still in conjunction with his wealthy father-in-law, he built a second playhouse, very near at hand, which he called “The Curtain,” some say because it was decorated with a curtain, others because it was built on the site of a house called the Curtain, and some again because there had formerly been a curtain wall on some fortifications there.
“The Curtain” was more commodious than its predecessor, and divided with “The Theatre” the honour of becoming the Nursery for the future stage. Here our earliest dramatists imped their wings. Here Marlowe made his first appearance as actor and poet; and, if a ribald scandalmonger is to be credited, broke his leg on the stage while he was playing some licentious part, which, Heaven help us! made it look like a judgment.
Here, too, Ben Jonson obtained his first employment as writer and vamper of plays, and, some say, as actor also, on coming back from the wars, when, destitute of friends and employment, he turned his face to Shoreditch, and took to the vagrant stage for a living. In some connection, also, with one of these houses, is a melancholy incident of which just enough is known to show that it was not all mock tragedy with the players. Amongst them there was one Gabriel Spenser, an obscure actor, but yet held in sufficient esteem to be called Gabriel by his fellows, according to their familiar and hearty custom.
What intercourse he had with Ben Jonson, who was a stout and high-tempered man, or how offence grew up between them, nobody knows. But Ben and Gabriel fell out, and there was nothing left for it but to settle their difference at the point of the sword. Gabriel, probably, was a bad swordsman, and he must have known, for it was quite notorious, that Ben was a man of fierce courage, and a master of fence. Perhaps it was from a consciousness of his own inferiority that, when they went out to fight in Hoxton Fields, Gabriel, who, strange to say, was the challenger, armed himself with a weapon ten inches longer than Ben’s.
Now Ben had been a soldier, and had fought an honourable single combat with an enemy in the presence of two armies, and had carried off the spoils; and this base conduct of Gabriel fairly maddened him. But he took a bloody reckoning for it in that sanguinary duel; for, in spite of the undue length of his opponent’s sword, he slew him on the ground. Gabriel was buried in the churchyard of St. Leonard’s, where many notabilities of the early stage sleep, and a curt note in the parish register records simply that he was killed.
Almost simultaneously with the building of “The Curtain,” or immediately after, and all within the circuit of a few months, the enterprising Burbadge, with a clearer and more practical view of what lay before him than he had when he originally ventured upon “The Theatre,” undertook a third play-house on the outskirts of the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction. This was in the liberties of the Blackfriars, on the verge of the Fleet river, a situation which, although just outside the dominions of the Lord Mayor, was one of the most thronged quarters of the town.
Strenuous efforts were made to prevent him from establishing himself in this rich neighbourhood. The rooms he had obtained possession of adjoined the house of the Lord Chamberlain, who, with the Lord Hunsdon, the Lady Elizabeth Russell, and other distinguished inhabitants of the precinct, petitioned the Privy Council to stop him in his proceedings, setting forth the evil consequences that would ensue from the establishment of a play-house, especially as it was so near the church that it would disturb the minister and congregation in time of divine service.
The petition failed, as did likewise a subsequent attempt made by the Lord Mayor to put down stage-plays in the Blackfriars, for which his worship was reproved by the Privy Council, and directed not to intermeddle with the Liberties, except in the case of felons, as he had always done. The Blackfriars, destined to become one of the principal playhouses in the metropolis, was accordingly completed without interruption, and opened in 1576. Several other play-houses soon sprang up: the Red Ball and the Fortune in the north of London; and on the southern bank of the river, in Southwark, the Globe, the Rose, the Swan, and two or three more in Newington and elsewhere.
The poor players had their revenge, and a signal revenge it was. Driven out of the city, and put to their wits’ end for a subsistence, they built play-houses for themselves — a privilege they never enjoyed before — and laid the solid foundations of a profession which had previously neither form nor influence. There was, in reality, no stage till the players were expelled by the Lord Mayor.
The player was little higher in the social scale than a street vagrant, who begged, or cheated, or juggled from hand to mouth. There was no association, no combined effort, no drama. But from the moment James Burbadge erected the theatre in Shoreditch, the calling of the player began to assume a definite and independent character. Acting grew up into the dignity of an Art, and out of the old chaos of drolls and interludes, and the rest of the wilderness of strange spectacles that used to be represented on Saints’ days, and marriage festivals, and the feasts of the Church, there rose up a National Drama.
Shakspeare found nearly all these theatres built when he came to London about 1585 or 1586; and some few years elapse after that before we have any trace of him as actor or dramatist. And during all this interval — fifteen years and upwards — James Burbadge has been living in the same house in Holywell Street, burying and marrying his children, and more increasing upon him, and in the midst of his family cares bringing out a succession of new plays, and looking after the companies of the three theatres, rather a more serious matter than the management of Lord Leicester’s troop, which consisted of five persons. The new plays were, for the most part, of a stately and magnificent order, of great breadth and grandeur, presenting humanity chiefly under imperial aspects, or in shapes of epic exaggeration; and the acting, with an ample capacity of pomp for such representations, was becoming insensibly trained for a drama taking in a wider horizon, and a greater variety of life.
Shakspeare found all this machinery ready to his hand when he was admitted into the Blackfriars, where Richard Burbadge, the second son of the founder of the first, and the second, and the third play-house, was already an established actor, taking the parts of all the boy-heroes, and youthful princes, with an earnestness that held out the surest promise of future greatness.
We need not speak of the friendship and intimate relations, lasting all their lives through, that bound the poet and the young actor together. Everybody knows that Richard Burbadge became the Roscius of his age, and that he was the original actor in most of Shakspeare’s principal characters; that the poet and the player, who were nearly of an age, died within two years of each other, Shakspeare dying first; and that, in honour of his memory, Burbadge called his next son William. These matters, tempting as they are, belong not to our story of the First Playhouse.
When the proper time arrived for James Burbadge to seek a renewal of his lease, he put his request in legal form before Goodman Giles Allen, stating that he had complied with all the conditions, and, amongst the rest, that he had expended no less than 700 l. upon “The Theatre.”
But Allen set up an excuse for declining to fulfil his agreement, and Burbadge had no remedy. By this time he was so much occupied with his ventures elsewhere, that he left his property in the theatre to the management of his son Cuthbert, who, following the example of his father, became a partner in the building of the Globe on the Bankside; so that, first to last, the Burbadges were closely mixed up with the great age of the drama from its beginning to the very topmost pinnacle of its glory.
But still more curious was it that Shakspeare, who did not appear upon the scene until Burbadge, the father, had done all the rough work, and prepared the temples for the high ceremonies of our stage literature, should become mixed up, in the long-run, with the very first playhouse, and should come to play and write under the shadow of its timbers.
It happened in this way. Cuthbert Burbadge, finding that he could not obtain a renewal of his lease, in the expectation of which so prodigal an outlay had been incurred, determined not to leave the theatre behind him for the benefit of Goodman Allen; and, accordingly, collecting together some twenty friends, armed with swords, axes, daggers and other weapons and implements, he proceeded to take down the wood-work.
Goodman Allen was by no means disposed to yield up the materials (for he professed to hold the playhouse, as a playhouse, in abhorrence) without a struggle; and he gathered his followers together to resist Burbadge and his men. A battle royal ensued. But Cuthbert won the day, and triumphantly transported to the Bankside the whole of the wood that composed the theatre in Shoreditch, and applied it to the enlargement of the Globe, where Shakspeare was writing plays and James Burbadge acting in them.
Thus came to a violent end the First Playhouse, after having run through a successful career of nearly a quarter of a century. The Curtain survived it, but gradually fell into disrepute; the current of popularity, as time advanced, setting in towards Southwark in the summer, and Blackfriars in the winter.
James Burbadge did not live to witness the demolition of “The Theatre.” He died before the lease was quite expired, and, like all the Burbadges, for three or four generations after, was buried in the populous churchyard of St. Leonard’s, near his merry friend and neighbour, Dick Tarlton, who had taken up a tenement in God’s Acre about eight years before.
Dick, the prince of jesters, and the most illustrious of our historical clowns, lived, as they all did, in Holywell Street (known in after times as High Street), and was not only an actor of especial merit, but one of the Earl of Leicester’s servants. He was in close alliance with the Burbadges, and from him, in all probability, Richard, the actor, derived his name.
The attachment of this first playhouse family to the quarter in which they originally struck root is remarkable. Their growing fortunes never tempted them to wander from their early homestead; and even Cuthbert, whose material interest lay chiefly in the Borough, and Richard, whose celebrity might have excused a flight into more fashionable regions, continued to their deaths to reside in the old street in Shoreditch.
The widow of James Burbadge was no less steadfast than the rest. She outlived her husband seven years, and followed him to the same churchyard which already contained the ashes of some of her children, and in which the rest of them were afterwards deposited.